Leek’s 18th missing century font

By 

A.W.Bednall

The Bednall Archive


Introduction

The historic church of St Edward's, of Leek in Staffordshire, stands on a site which has been used for Christian ceremonies for more than 1,000years. One of these -baptism- welcomes the new born child into the world and into the Church by, amongst other things, the sprinkling on of water to signify cleansing from sin.

 Fonts have been used in churches for over 1,000 years and the use of fonts was a matter of sufficient importance to the Church for a canon to be issued in 1238 requiring that “every baptismal church have a font of stone, or some other proper material. sufficient in size. decently covered, reverently kept."  Evidently, over the centuries, some churches failed to comply with this canon for in 1603 a further canon was issued that "According to a former constitution. too much neglected in many places., we appoint that there shall be a font of stone in every church and chapel where baptism is to be administered”

Leek font cov..jpg (49616 bytes)The Cruso Font., ST. Edward's Church, Leek, StaffordshireThe font, usually a large bowl mounted on a pedestal, forms the focus of baptismal ceremonies and St. Edward’s Church has a splendid, Victorian, marble example which was erected in memory of John Cruso of Foxlowe, by "his fellow townsmen and other friends", in 1867.  Described in Arthur Mee’s “Staffordshire" (1937) as a “fine modern font," it now lacks the "richly wrought metal canopy" it once had.  The Cruso font continues, however, to serve Leek folk as it has served several previous generations and is one of the many elements. within and outside the church, which contribute to Leek's historical, artistic and spiritual heritage. But what about those generations born before the Cruso font was given to the church? What did the font at which they were baptised look like and what happened to it?

 The "History and Guide to Leek Parish Church of St. Edward the Confessor”, compiled by W. .S. Brooks and edited by the Rev. P. D. S. .Blake, tells us that the Reverend. Richard Smith, Vicar of Rushton Spencer from 1863 to1882, arranged the transfer of the 'original font' to Kirknewton Parish Church, Northumberland.  However, as to the age and design of the ‘original' font the 'History and Guide' is silent.  In the church all that remains is the blue bowl on the wall behind the Cruso font, which was used, according to the "History and Guide", to "hold the water in the original font”.

 Church

In 1990, the author decided to visit Kirknewton Church to try to locate the Leek font and obtain some details of its history.  The Parish Church of St. Gregory the Great, at Kirknewton is an interesting church sited within a mile of the place where the missionary Paulinus established a church in A.D.627.  Dedications to St Gregory are rare in the United Kingdom and that at Kirknewton is unique in Northumberland.  Much of the church was built prior to the 12th -13th centuries and it contains a carving of the Adoration of the Magi which may be of ninth century origin.

 The Font in the Burrell Chapel

Kirknewton Church serves a large parish (45000 acres) and has three fonts.  At the west end of the nave stands a fine 17th century stone font, dated 1663, which is now the only one which can safely be used for baptisms.  A second font which was formerly at the Parish Church of Mindon staThe font in the Burrell Chapel, St. Gregory the Great, Kirknewton, Northumberland, UKnds in the churchyard but it is the third font, located in the church's Burrell Chapel, that is of greatest interest. . The font in the Burrell Chapel is in need of repair and can no longer be used.  It consists of three parts -a bowl, a stem and a base- which when reassembled form a font standing approximately 50 inches high.   The bowl of the font is 22 inches in diameter, about 8 inches deep, and has a scalloped underside. When the font is assembled it is supported on a stem 24 inches in length. Both bowl and stem are of a white-grey marble.  The simple base is of stone decorated to simulate marble and may not be original.  The metal parts connecting the various sections have deteriorated to such an extent that the font rocks and is insecure (possibly dangerous) when assembled.  The scalloping on the underside of the bowl and on the lower part of the stem is similar to that found on an oval, stone bowl (which may also once been part of a font) lying in the Churchyard of Ilam, Staffordshire,.

 The origin of the Burrell Font

 The style and vigour of the sculpture on the font suggests an origin in the first half of the 18th century and this is consistent with it being the former Leek font.  However, one of the churchwardens of Kirknewton stated that although the Burrell font was provided by a previous incumbent and was, he said, thought to be of Italian origin.  If the supposed Italian origin is ignored, the churchwarden’s statement is consistent with the view expressed in the History and Guide to Leek Parish Church of St. Edward the Confessor”, that the Reverend Richard Smith, was responsible for the font’s transfer to Kirknewton. The fact that the Reverend Smith became the Vicar of Kirknewton Church and died there on the 12th of January 1886 provides further support for the view that the font in the Burrell Chapel of Kirknewton Church, Northumberland is that which stood for much of the 18th and 19th centuries in St. Edward’s Church, in Leek, Staffordshire.

Until recently it was not possible to be certain that the font was the former Leek font but the discovery of a sepia drawing in the William Salt Library, Stafford, strongly suggest that it was.  The drawing was made by artist John Buckler in 1844 and shows the font to be "a small bowl on a baluster shaft" identical in all respects with the figure shown above. 

 The Dyer's Gift

C.B. Mellor, in his History and Antiquities of the Parish Church of St Edward, Leek, notes an entry in the church records dated 23 May 1739 concerning a bill for a new font "the gift of Mr Badnall".  Mr. Badnall was William Badnall, a mohair dyer whose premises were "between a piece where the ducking stool lately was and the mills called Leek Mills" i.e. on the corner of Abbey Green Lane and Mill Street in the area between the Brindley Mill and the old bridge over the River Churnet.  The dyeing firm he established was the basis of a family business which was one of Leek's most substantial firms in the early 19th century.  Badnall was warden of Leek in 1738 and 1739 and his "gift" -if gift it was- cost him £10.50, the equivalent of (perhaps) £2500 today.  There is, however, some reason to doubt that the font was the 'gift of Mr Badnall' since the churchwardens' accounts for the period simply state 'George Gibsons bill for font by Mr Badnall."  The font was evidently supplied by 'George Gibson' who was, presumably, a mason but Mr. Badnall's role seems merely to have been to pay the bill . He was, after all, churchwarden at the time and the payment was entered into the accounts.  Other references to which Mellor had access may provide an explanation for his statement but apart from a few references to work carried out "about the font and boards" during its installation in May·1739, the parish records so far examined give no indication that the font was a gift.  It should, however, be noted that (apart from a note that a new font was added when the chancel was rebuilt) the parish records of the late 1860s are equally silent with respect to the Cruso font which we know, from plaques affixed to its base and to the adjacent wall, to have been a gift.

 'Not proven'

The 18th century font -the so called Dyer’s Gift- which served four or five generations of Leek folk may be that now lying now in the Burrell Chapel of the Parish Church of Kirknewton, Northumberland.  However, the author has so far been unable to obtain documentary evidence confirming the transfer of the Leek font to Kirknewton.  Circumstantial evidence suggests that the one time Vicar of Rushton Spencer, the Reverend Richard Smith, was the former incumbent of Kirknewton who provided the font now lying in the Burrell Chapel.   Examination of the records of Kirknewton Church, or of the documents used by the authors of the St. Edward’s “History and Guide”, may provide the confirmation needed but until such time the verdict must be 'not proven.' A request has been made to the Vicar of Kírknewton for any information which may provide convincing proof of the font's origin but no reply has been received so far.

Earlier fonts

If the font now lying in the Burrell Chapel of Kirknewton Church is that which formerly stood in Leek's parish church, it cannot have been Leek's "original" or earliest font as indicated in the "History and Guide" to St Edward’s Church. for it is (probably) of early 18th century origin.  When installed in 1739 the then new font replaced an earlier one whose presence is indicated in the churchwardens' accounts by two entries concerning the purchase "of a stople for the font...4d" in1677. Presumably a 'stople' was a stop or plug for the drain hole.  Once again we have John Buckler to thank for providing a drawing of the font used St. Edward's Church, Leek prior to the 18th century. In 1844, Buckler found that the old font had been "turned out into the belfry"  and his drawing shows it to have been a plain, undecorated, tub shaped font.

 'Leek's Heritage Restored?'

Unlike many of the buildings which currently form an important part of Leek’s Heritage, Leek’s present font is not under threat of destruction or even damaging renovation but will remain. what it has been for the foreseeable future.  Regrettably, many of the buildings which give Leek's market place, town centre much of its character of are under threat and most of the great houses -Ashenhurst, Ball Haye and Highfield- have disappeared and are, physically at least, irrecoverable.  However, if the font at Kirknewton -now lying in pieces, unused and unusable (unless repaired) in the Burrell Chapel- is Leek's lost 18th century font, might it not be returned to the parish it once served -a fragment of Leek’s heritage restored?

                                                                                                ©awbednall, macclesfield 1999